September 28, 2006
Scientists for Informed Science Policy
A group of scientists and engineers has begun a new organization dedicated to supporting politicians who are committed to using good scientific research in forming public policy. The group is Scientists and Engineers for America, and their website can be found here. They outline their initial goals on their newly created Blog. On their main webpage, they state as follows:
Today a group of scientists and concerned citizens launch a new organization, Scientists and Engineers for America, dedicated to electing public officials who respect evidence and understand the importance of using scientific and engineering advice in making public policy.
The principal role of the science and technology community is to advance human understanding. But there are times when this is not enough. Scientists and engineers have a right, indeed an obligation, to enter the political debate when the nation’s leaders systematically ignore scientific evidence and analysis, put ideological interests ahead of scientific truths, suppress valid scientific evidence and harass and threaten scientists for speaking honestly about their research.
We ask every American who values scientific integrity in decision-making to join us in endorsing a basic Bill of Rights for Scientists and Engineers. Together we will elect new leadership beginning in 2006, and we will continue to work to elect reasonable leadership in federal, state and local elections for years to come.
It certainly sounds like a worthy cause. The New York Times article describing the founders and their goals can be found here.
September 26, 2006
Student Edition of Modern Scientific Evidence
One perquisite of having a blog is self-promotion. In that spirit, the new student edition of our four volume treatise, Modern Scientific Evidence: The Law and Science of Expert Testimony, is now available. The student edition is a two volume, and reorganized, version of the bigger set. One volume is dedicated to introductory subjects, including, among others, admissibility standards, research methods, statistics, toxicology and epidemiology. The other volume is dedicated to subjects in the forensic sciences, ranging from DNA to latent fingerprint identification. The announcement from Thomson/West Publishers follows:
West is pleased to announce the recent publication of Faigman, Kaye, Saks, Sanders and Cheng's Modern Scientific Evidence 2006 Student Editions: Standards, Statistics and Research Methods and Forensic Issues.
Judges and lawyers are not generally known for expertise in science and mathematics. Nor is science a subject given significant attention in American law schools. Times, however, are changing. An ever-increasing percentage of the average lawyer's caseload involves scientific and technical evidence. Indeed, it is the rare case that does not involve experts. Following the landmark case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., federal courts, and many state courts, mandate that trial court judges operate as gatekeepers in regard to expert evidence. The lawyers who practice before them will need to make the arguments for and against admission of disputed expertise. And if the disputed expert opinion is admitted, the lawyers must have the wherewithal to cross-examine that testimony. If lawyers are going to be prepared for the practice of law in the twenty-first century, they need to develop a basic understanding of statistics and science.
Standards, Statistics and Research Methods and Forensic Issues are special student editions of a much larger work intended for a professional audience, our four volume treatise MODERN SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE: THE LAW AND SCIENCE OF EXPERT TESTIMONY (2005). The student editions are available separately. Standards, Statistics and Research Methods focuses on standards, statistics and research issues surrounding expert evidence, and Forensic Issues is devoted to subjects in the forensic sciences. These volumes will be effective either standing alone or as companions to regular texts in a variety of classes. More fundamentally, we hope that these volumes will be used to begin the process of educating lawyers and judges regarding the scientific method in law school.
Science is a tool that the law can and must use to achieve its own objectives. Science cannot dictate what is fair and just. But science has become, and will forever more be, something upon which the law must sometimes rely to do justice.
September 25, 2006
The Weekly Detail, a newletter for the latent fingerprint community, reported a talk by Steve Scarborough in today's edition. The talk, the first of two parts, was given to a large group of latent examiners. You can subscribe to The Weekly Detail here. Since it appears to be taken from an oral presentation, the talk rambles somewhat and is hard to appreciate from a distance. Nonetheless, it is instructive, since it represents some of the thinking (or lack thereof) that is going on in this community. His main argument appears to be in response to those who doubt the "uniqueness" of fingerprints. Along the way, he seeks to defend claims of "infallibility" in the process of fingerprint identification, though he argues that such claims do not mean that examiners don't make mistakes. The two issues of uniquenenss and error rates must be kept separate, though Scarborough does not always accomplish this well.
First of all, on the question of uniqueness. Most critics do not challenge the uniqueness of fingerprints. It is a red-herring; it is both scientifically uninteresting and legally irrelevant. The uniqueness of fingerprints says absolutely nothing, NOTHING, about the ability of examiners to reliably and validly make fingerprint identifications between partial latent fingerprints and the known prints of a suspect or defendant. In theory, every person's face is unique, but this fact, if it is so, does not tell us whether reliable and valid identifications can be made when comparing the nose and ear of an unknown person to the full face of a known person. Empirically, the hypothesis that fingerprints are unique is separate and largely unrelated to the hypothesis that fingerprint identifications can be made from partial latent prints.
Please, can we all just stop talking about whether fingerprints are unique. Nothing follows from the fact, if it is so, that they are unique. I, for one, willingly (nay, enthusiastically), concede for the sake of all further argument that fingerprints are unique. Now, let's move on.
The second issue presented, and the one of great legal significance, is the error rate of latent print examination. Claims of "infallibility" pertain to whether fingerprint examiners are 100% accurate. To his credit, Scarborough admits that fingerprint examiners make mistakes, despite apparent comments to the contrary:
In all the training classes and presentations and testimony, the FBI has never once said that there are no mistakes made by fingerprint experts. In fact the FBI, in warnings about effective verification, mentions mistakes that they are run across in submitted cases from local agencies. The FBI has always promoted verification, consultation and double checks to assure that no mistakes in fingerprint identifications are made.
The fact that mistakes are possible, then, requires some level of quality control, which might or might not be effective. It should also result in attempts to measure the rate of those errors. On the general issue, he states as follows:
The FBI instructors stress verification and other quality control measures. They promote and teach verification to prevent mistakes. If people didn’t make mistakes with regard to Fingerprints ... then we wouldn’t need verification. But we all know that human beings make mistakes, and it goes without saying that humans are not infallible. The assumption that when the FBI fingerprint expert says that they are 100% certain about the ID, that they are implying that they don’t make mistakes, is a grand leap of logic.
At the end of the above quote, the waters get muddied. Scarborough is saying that a claim of 100% certainty by a latent print examiner is not a claim that they are 100% accurate. Fair enough. But what, then, is the claim of 100% confidence based upon, if not some idea that the error rate associated with the technology he or she used is "vanishingly small." Indeed, I don't know of any bona fide scientist who would claim 100% confidence in a technique/process/machine that itself did not have 100% accuracy. But, in any case, how do examiners know that their error rates are so low that they can have 100% confidence in their conclusions? It cannot be made on the basis of the uniqueness-of-fingerprints hypothesis, since that hypothesis has nothing to do with the hypothesis of latent examiner validity (see above). It is not based on published research, since precious little exists. It cannot be based on experience -- other than casual anecdote -- since no systematic attempt has been made to catalogue errors.
So, I am very heartened to see that a prominent latent examiner has admitted the existence of measurable error rates associated with latent fingerprint procedures. It's about time that researchers began to actually measure those error rates.
September 24, 2006
Women in Science
A new report by a panel convened by the National Academies of Science finds that institutional barriers, not innate differences, explain the "relative dearth of women in the upper ranks of science." The report can be found Here. Today's New York Times story on the panel report can be found Here.
New York Times columnist John Tierney dismisses the Academy's report as little more than an embarrassing PC tract. See Here.